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Student anxiety has emerged as the biggest challenge of exams season

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

An ASCL survey published this week showed that more than 80% of headteachers and principals report that stress and anxiety among students taking their exams this summer is higher than in pre-pandemic years.

The findings are timely for two reasons. The first, of course, is that the first full set of public exams for three years begin next week. The second is that this comes during Mental Health Awareness Week.

It also links to ongoing concerns about high levels of pupil absence, only part of which is related to Covid. What the survey showed was that stress and anxiety are another factor which is affecting attendance.

In fact, when we asked respondents what was the impact of the stress and anxiety felt by students, school absence was the dominant theme. One respondent wrote of “an increase in the number who barely attend school at all.

This, of course, makes particularly irksome the Education Secretary’s comment piece in the Telegraph where, writing about the new Schools Bill, he said the government wants all schools “to take a proactive approach to attendance” and went on to say “we want schools to have an attendance policy that sets clear expectations for staff, pupils and parents alike.”

Not only is it difficult to believe that there is any school in the country which does not already do these things, but this shows a lack of understanding about the complexity of the issues around attendance – the factors identified in our survey, for example.

To tackle the issue of attendance, two important steps are needed – neither of which appear in the Schools Bill, the white paper, or any other part of government policy.

The first of these is sufficient funding for schools to be able to afford the level of specialist and pastoral support that is needed for pupils whose attendance is problematic. The government will argue that funding is sufficient and quote some large figures. But the reality in schools continues to be that budgets are under extreme pressure. The second step is to restore the attendance support services provided by local authorities which have undergone huge cuts because of the government’s austerity programme over the past decade or so.

One could add to that list a third step – more resources and reduced waiting times for access to NHS mental health services for children and young people.

Of course, the issue of stress and anxiety around exams this year may be worse than in pre-pandemic times but it is also not new. The halcyon days before Covid were not all that halcyon when it came to the welter of terminal GCSE exams which are regarded as some sort of rite of passage in this country. As I wrote in this column last week, it is surely time to slim down the sheer number of papers sat by students and introduce different forms of assessment so that the system is more proportionate and humane.

That, of course, is all for another time, however. The immediate challenge for schools and colleges is the imminent exam season. 

Our survey also revealed that the challenge for more than a third of respondents is greater still because of difficulties in recruiting a sufficient number of invigilators. This appears to be caused chiefly by a combination of two factors. The first is a reluctance among individuals who are often retired to put themselves forward to invigilate this summer because of anxiety about Covid and the prospect of being in an exam hall with a large number of students. The second is an increased number of requests from students to sit their exams in separate rooms away from the main exam hall because of stress and anxiety.

We have been calling for the government to make available free Covid tests for students taking their exams which might help to allay the concerns among individuals about invigilating and ease at least part of the problem. But the government – in its customary unhelpful way – has refused what seems a perfectly reasonable and sensible request.

The upshot of all this is that what the profession needs from the government in the future is far more understanding and support around the complexity of issues like attendance, a rethink about the impact of an overbearing exam system, and action when it is needed in providing practical support to schools and colleges in an emergency situation.

None of that should really need saying of course.

In the meantime, the positive thing that we do know is that schools and colleges have been doing their very best – as they always do – to prepare and support their students for the forthcoming exam series, despite the aforementioned challenges. 

So, from us to you, your staff and your students, our best wishes for the exam season ahead. You really do deserve fewer platitudes and more support from the government. But thankfully you are very good at what you do for your students and your communities.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 13/05/2022 09:48:37